If you've ever tried to cross Manhattan in midday traffic, you know it can feel as if it's taking all day. In Don DeLillo's high-strung new novel Cosmopolis, Eric Packer's limo ride down 47th Street from the East River to the Hudson literally takes all day and most of the night. It is a journey that, in its encompassing scope, recalls Leopold Bloom's day-long trek through Dublin, though DeLillo, unlike Joyce, manages to fit it all into a very slender book.
One of the nation's top novelists, DeLillo won the National Book Award in 1985 for White Noise. In critically acclaimed books like Mao II, Underworld and Libra, he blends fact with fiction in provocative ways that critique modern America our materialism, our history, our penchant for conspiracy theories. On a personal level, the books perfectly capture the sense of detachment and lack of communication that characterize the human condition. DeLillo explores similar themes in Cosmopolis, which tells the story of Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire living in the moment. Having made an obscene fortune as an assets broker, Eric dwells in a 48-room penthouse apartment that cost $104 million and travels around town in a white stretch limousine equipped with an array of visual display screens, an infrared security system, a heart monitor, a microwave and even a toilet. On the ceiling of the car is a mural depicting the alignment of the stars at the precise moment when Eric was born.
On this particular day in April 2000, Eric's primary objective is to get a haircut. Ensconced in his hermetic limo, he heads across town accompanied by his security chief, Torvil, and a small army of bodyguards, who patrol alongside on foot. The traffic crawls even more slowly than usual, but Eric doesn't really care, because he can control his world as easily from inside the space age car as from his office or apartment. His only real concern is the spiraling value of the yen, since he has hedged his bets and his fortune against the currency. As the car inches across the city, Eric occasionally gets out to have a quick sexual encounter with his art dealer/mistress, to have an equally quick bite of lunch with his heiress bride (with whom he has not yet had sex), to peruse poetry books at the Gotham Book Mart. Most times, though, he is joined in the limo by advisors from his corporate battalion, and even a proctologist who gives him an exam in the middle of a business meeting.
As the novel's title suggests, 47th Street should be seen as a microcosm of the contemporary world, as Eric's unseemly wealth is juxtaposed against the whole spectrum of human situations. Eric's detachment from that world is most apparent when a political demonstration by a group with a vaguely socialist agenda stalls traffic completely, and he watches dispassionately as a protester self-immolates. To Eric it is an empty gesture lacking the gravitas of the Buddhist monks in Saigon that draws the curious attention of some tourists but nothing more. Of course, there is a reason why Eric would bypass any number of hair salons along the way (to Torvil's never-ending frustration) to patronize an anything-but-chic barbershop in seedy Hell's Kitchen. It is a place from the past, and as such, a fitting destination for Eric as his self-made world crumbles along with the dollar. There is another figure from Eric's past in the picture, as well. Benno Levin is a former junior employee, decidedly disgruntled, who has descended to a life on the streets. An unplanned but inevitable rendezvous with Benno awaits.
The slightly over-the-top world that DeLillo creates in Cosmopolis is just the other side of reality, but nonetheless, it offers a disturbing mirror image of contemporary life. Eric is a different kind of fictional outsider: not a have-not, but a have-it-all who, ironically, has nothing. And while the details of his life seem remote in some ways, his callousness and self-centered urgency do not. The actions of people like Eric have a profound effect on the lives of the rest us, even if their world is as ephemeral as the fluctuating value of the yen.
Robert Weibezahl has worked in the publishing industry for 20 years as a writer and publicist. He lives in Los Angeles.